How the pursuit of the last ‘lost’ Caravaggio captivated the European art world

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At the end of March, Maria Cristina Terzaghi, associate professor at the Italian University Roma Tre, was writing about the famous baroque painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, when the art dealer Fabrizio Moretti sent her a photo of a painting via WhatsApp. It featured Pontius Pilate presenting a Jesus crowned with thorns, a recognizable painting known as the Ecce Homo. The exact image was new to Terzaghi, but its composition and light contrast felt familiar to her, mirroring other works by an artist she had studied for over 17 years.

“Right away, it was so clear. I said ‘OK I have to see it [in person], ‘”, She remembers her first glance. The starting bid for the work, which was due to go on sale on April 8 at the Madrid auction house Ansorena, was only 1,500 euros, or around 1,800 dollars. Terzaghi asked the dealer and auctioneers for the higher resolution images, which further fueled her. suppose the work was an authentic Caravaggio. Based on interviews with nearly a dozen of the world’s leading Caravaggio experts, this is a theory that the vast majority of them now support – and one that the dealer overseeing the authentication of the work aims to confirm in a report that it plans to publish in early 2022..

In the high-stakes world of old master hunting, a “sleeper” refers to a lost masterpiece that has remained out of public view, sometimes for centuries, often due to some mistake in the art. previous attribution. As in this case, its true identity is often unknown to an owner, but its existence has been speculated by academics. If authenticated, the table – titled The crown of thorns by auction house and Ecce Homo by most scholars – may prompt scholars to rethink Caravaggio’s work already contested elsewhere and a significant part of his career.

Prado Museum in Madrid.


Photo:

Daniel Kalker / AP Images

In 2014, another sleeper, often titled Judith and Holofernes, found under a mattress in a French attic, sparked a storm of international debate when he was called the Rediscovered Caravaggio. It sold for an undisclosed sum in 2019 to a then anonymous private buyer, just two days before a public auction that aimed to sell it for up to $ 170 million, and after five years of searching for authentication. .

This spring, the hunt for that last “lost” Caravaggio gathered pace, as news of a possible discovery made its way into the inner circle of Old Masters aficionados. Terzaghi remembers receiving a message from David García Cueto, curator of Italian art at the Museo del Prado in Madrid, asking her if she had ever seen the work in person. At that time, she was already planning to see him in Madrid, as well as meeting Moretti and his friend Marco Voena, another Italian art dealer, the day before the proposed sale. She responded to Cueto on her way to the Spanish capital. On April 7, she landed, dropped off her luggage at a hotel, and rushed to the auction house before it closed for the day.

The staff then removed the painting from the public display and led Terzaghi to a separate room to examine it with a flashlight. “In my life, I couldn’t imagine that I could see a new Caravaggio,” Terzaghi said. “It’s not that common. (Experts estimate that there are around 60 known works of Caravaggio in the world, many of which have hung in the same public institutions for decades, if not centuries.) After seeing the work in person, Terzaghi ruled that ‘she was genuine – an opinion that, if cemented by scientific analysis and enough other art historians and sold at international auctions, it could result in a price tag of over $ 100million. dollars. This would make it one of the most cherished Old Master paintings in history. But, as Terzaghi soon learned, the painting was unlikely to leave Spain.

“In my life, I couldn’t imagine that I could see a new Caravaggio. It’s not that common.


– Cristina Terzaghi

After leaving the gallery, she called Cueto – who, unbeknownst to her, had already quietly spotted the painting days earlier while it was still on display to the public – to share her assessment. She was also unaware that Cueto’s boss, Prado director Miguel Falomir, had previously contacted Elena Hernando Gonzalo, a local government official responsible for safeguarding cultural heritage in Madrid, to inform her that questions about the attribution of the table had been raised. The Spanish Ministry of Culture has called a meeting at midnight to prevent the work from leaving Spain. Hernando Gonzalo quickly began the process of qualifying the work as “property of cultural interest”. This designation gives the object a protected status, requiring authorization for any modification and granting the Spanish State the right of pre-emption on any future sale abroad.

On the morning of the auction, Moretti and Voena, through their representation, emailed Ansorena an offer of 10 million euros ($ 11.74 million) including commission. Andrea Ciaroni, another Italian merchant, says he also saw the painting several days earlier, after his own ségant– Italian to point out – had warned him of its existence. “Seeing such a large board appear at a very low price, of course, got everyone excited,” said Ciaroni, one of at least three parties who said they made a seven-figure or higher bid ahead of the sale. planned auction. While a representative from Ansorena said the number of bids was confidential, auction house CEO Jaime Mato said all bids made were irrelevant since the piece had been withdrawn. of the auction on the instructions of the owners – siblings Antonio, Diego and Mercedes Pérez de Castro (who declined to be interviewed for this article).

“Seeing such an important painting appear at a very low price, of course, got everyone excited. ”


– Andréa Ciaroni

An earlier independent appraisal had attributed the canvas to the studio of Spanish artist José de Ribera, who spent much of his life in Italy and adopted a style similar to Caravaggio, known as Tenebrism., which accentuates the contrast between light and dark. As a result, Mato says, after receiving the work in the weeks leading up to the auction, his team had no reason to doubt the original attribution. But once the painting is removed, careful consideration of its provenance would be crucial in determining its potential sale value.

Jorge Coll, the Barcelona-born CEO of Colnaghi, one of the oldest commercial art galleries in the world, met directly with the three siblings, who told him the painting had hung in their family home for decades. and was one of many they were looking to sell at auction. Historians quickly revealed that Evaristo Pérez de Castro, the ancestor of the owners and one of the prime ministers of Spain, had mentioned the work in his will almost 200 years earlier. Sitting at his London office with a Picasso on his right shoulder, Coll says his interest in research for commercial gain, as well as his gallery’s presence and connections in Spain have helped the family trust him to oversee the authentication and restoration of the array. “It was a total eye-opener for the market,” says Coll. “You are revealing something very important. “

In May, he accompanied a delegation of experts from some of the city’s main artistic institutions, to view the painting in his current home, a warehouse on the outskirts of Madrid. The group discussed the restoration process and technical analysis, which Coll says will proceed slowly. The paint will need to be cleaned by carefully removing layers of varnished oxidized paint, with scientists using x-rays and infrared reflectography to examine its hidden layers, as well as testing the canvas and paint pigments. At the end of September, Coll still had not decided which institution should perform these tests.

“Provenance alone is not going to get you a Caravaggio. He must pass the technical and visual tests.


– David M. Stone

Eric Turquin, who authenticated Judith and Holofernes, says that finding a possible Caravaggio can be the “most exciting thing” that an art historian, dealer or expert will experience in their life. But Caravaggio’s work is “probably the most difficult to recognize,” he says, thanks to the artist’s technical and stylistic development. “He’s not an obvious artist, at least for me.”

And despite the academic consensus that the painting is most likely a Caravaggio, some experts remain skeptical, notably Nicola Spinosa, the former director of the Naples Art Museums who is one of the few art history experts in have seen the painting in person so far. Deep cleaning is necessary, he says, to clarify the identity of the painter.

“Provenance alone will not give you Caravaggio,” said David. Mr. Stone, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Art History at the University of Delaware and Administrator of the American Academy in Rome. “He must pass the technical and visual tests. Despite the Spanish government’s export restrictions, strong authentication could still mean that institutions – like the Prado – would pay a significant sum to ensure it joins other world-famous works in the hands of the public. Museum officials declined to discuss the painting until their own experts could analyze it.

“If you think about, what is the value of a canvas and a little oil? – it’s nothing, ”says Coll. “But it is about creation.”

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